VAR's teething troubles could take heart from cricket's DRS

For those still furious over France being awarded a penalty in the World Cup final for Ivan Perisic's handball, and thus annoyed about the idea of the Video Assistant Referee (VAR), there's good news and bad.

The bad news first - VAR is not going away. First used in Australia's A-League in April 2017, and unleashed upon the world in Russia 2018, it will be used in La Liga in the coming season.

The good news - VAR doesn't take up as much time as was feared. FIFA reveals that the average time of a review at the 2018 Russia World Cup was 81.9 seconds, the on-field reviews called for taking slightly longer (86.5 seconds). The VAR team - those four men in full referee kit in front of 14 screens in Moscow - sat on 20 VAR reviews, of which 17 were changed and three confirmed.

The can't-get-away-from news is that the VAR needs some fixing. If any decision showed up the sinkholes that lie around the solid technology, preparation and manpower that is the VAR system, it was referee Nestor Pitana's penalty against Perisic in the World Cup final. Did it meet the FIFA rulebook definition of the handball as "a deliberate act of a player making contact with the ball with his hand or arm" and its several sub-conditions? Did the referee believe there was enough evidence to award a penalty in the 35th minute of the World Cup final?

The first question surrounding VAR is, should the decision-making process be taken out of the on-field referee's hands? Go back to the World Cup final: What was Pitana's physical and psychological state when studying the video replay, surrounded as he was by shrieking tens of thousands at the Luzhniki Stadium? A 2011 Brazilian study had compared the heart rates of referees during various league competition across the world, including Euro 2000; they ranged between 150 to 165 beats a minute (the average adult resting heartbeat is 60-100). The fitness of a top football referee is not in doubt, but in the case of VAR, the question is: Once there is an option of a video review, is the on-field referee best placed to take a decision based on a slow-motion video replay in the middle of a match? Or would the Video Assistant Referee, sitting in his air-conditioned booth in Moscow, be better placed to make that call?

The other main question around VAR involves giving teams the right of appeal against errors of omission or commission. One fear is that this would add time and disturb the flow of the match. This is where VAR can learn a few things from cricket.

In cricket, the right to 'appeal' itself is built in to the game - no batsman can be given out without an appeal from the bowling side. Players' appeals in football, though, are the initiation of a debate with the referee. While cricket's DRS has not completely ended epidemics of faux appealing, the limited number of reviews has reduced the degree of pressure that can be put on umpires.

If the umpire gives in, the batsman can always appeal against a bad decision against him and have it reversed. The umpire is on high alert now, the bowling team are under scrutiny for excessive appealing. Will a football review reduce the fouls plentiful in matches like England vs. Colombia? Somehow it appears unlikely. But it will certainly give players some power to use the technology, which currently lies solely with the officials.

It is in such phases of play that the current VAR protocols can come unstuck - but it is a far simpler and more dynamic video referral system than the DRS, so it should be easier to sort out its kinks. It has taken cricket nearly a decade to balance subjectivity and instinct of umpiring experience with the need for greater accuracy. The DRS was first tried out in 2008 and officially launched in Test cricket in November 2009 and ODIs in January 2011.

At its very start, it was a mass of contradictions. DRS began as a retrofit of the available broadcasting bells and whistles (the slo-mo replay, the snickometer, sound miles and the predictive path of a ball) into the game's rulebook. The lack of uniformity in its usage along with powerful cricketing boards like the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) demanding that the DRS be "100% error-proof" meant that it was close to eight years before the game's ruling body decided to examine the DRS' essentials tools themselves.

The onus remained on the broadcasters and technology providers to improve the technology independently for DRS in order convince the sceptics. The HawkEye ball tracker camera frame rates went up, according to reports, from about 106 frames per second (fps) in 2011 to 250 fps and 330 fps in 2015. In 2012, the Hot Spot infra-red camera used heat detection technology to establish where the ball had struck (bat or pad) but as it came from military hardware, it was not a cheap technological solution. It was later found that sometimes the finest of snicks could not be spotted on Hot Spot. The introduction of the Real Time Snicko/Ultra Edge by the Hot Spot team in 2013 married sound and image, audio and video to produce a faster, cheaper and more accurate rendering of the edges off a cricket bat. It came into wider use in the 2015 ICC World Cup.

It was only between 2014 and 2015 that engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) were called in to design equipment that could test the DRS tools' degrees of accuracy. Between September 2015 and April 2016, tests were conducted on the tech tools using the new equipment. In October 2016, the Indian cricket board finally decided to use the DRS in a home Test series and has joined the DRS bloodstream without fuss ever since.

Despite the on-field back and forth that DRS reviews involve, to the player, umpire or the average fan, the referral system doesn't imply changes in the game's laws or destroy its spiritual fabric or ethos. It is merely an aid for more accurate results. The DRS protocol itself has been flexible and the game is responding to modern-day requirements thrown by the review system, whether fixing the number of reviews available to a team or altering the run-out rule itself. DRS is now found across all three formats of the international game in all but the most cash-strapped of cricketing nations. Its mandatory technologies could become a part of new broadcast deals now being signed by cricket boards.

The growing pains of cricket's DRS show that key changes could be required to make the system acceptable to both participants and the public. If decisions are taken rationally, the presence of an altered VAR, different from what we witnessed in Russia 2018, shouldn't raise a sneeze in the 2026 FIFA World Cup.

Cricket's tech package apart from the high speed cameras and stump mics needs the ball-tracker and edge-detection that uses either sound or heat (through infra-red cameras) or both to see whether ball has hit bat or pad or glove or boot. Cost implications have meant the use of DRS was uneven not merely across the game's three formats but locations across the world.

In contrast, the VAR's technical gadgetry is far simpler and in place. It has eight super slo-mo and four ultra slo-mo cameras (compared to DRS' six high-speed cameras around the crease), but the rest is merely the sound system between the on-field referee and the VAR team in Moscow, and HawkEye's three-dimensional offside line.

For a cricket fan like myself, the speed of the VAR reviews in the 2018 World Cup were formidably impressive and at no stage did an incident seem like a drag. Of course, there will be bloopers over bloopers. VAR just needs a bit more think-through around its loopholes. If technology can erase all doubt around a decision, why not try to find the best way to reach it? If the official in the VAR room can make a calm, clear-headed call far removed from the spittle of angry players flying into the face of his on-field colleague, why shouldn't he be the one making the call?

VAR is already an efficient, smoothly-functioning technological tool. In a sport that's richer and faster than cricket, its decision review system can surely fix the grey areas and arrive more quickly at smarter conclusions.